By Jodi Mailander Farrell
Visiting museums, theme parks and other new places outside the normal routine can be stressful for children and adults with autism and other special needs, but an increasing number of Florida cultural sites and attractions are offering virtual tours online that provide a chance to practice in advance.
Schools have been using “video modeling” to help children with autism adapt to new campuses and classrooms for years. Now virtual tours created by museums and landmarks to engage the public during COVID-19 closures are serving a dual purpose by fostering comfort and familiarity for those who struggle with new experiences.
“People on the spectrum don’t deal well with surprises. They tend to be regimented and like repetition, consistency,” said Stacey Hoaglund, president of the Autism Society of Florida, a nonprofit based in Orlando. “There’s a huge benefit for kids with autism to be able to sit at their computer and ride a theme park ride over and over, or visit a new place. Things become more predictable. It’s reassuring. Virtual tours put them in a place of comfort.”
From a 360-degree underwater virtual adventure in the Keys to a phone app that brings you up close to ancient artifacts in Ocala, here are some of the Florida tours and experiences that can be explored online before taking a trip.
St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum / St. Augustine
Climbing the narrow, steep steps of a lighthouse can be daunting. Tackle the 219-step adventure virtually first with a four-minute video created by the museum staff, complete with views from the top of the tower, first opened in 1874. The video tour even goes inside the lens room, usually off limits to the public.
From walking through its entrances and being outfitted with wristbands to visiting interactive exhibits and the planetarium, the 6 ½-minute video provided by the Frost Museum of Science is a calm and simple step-by-step guide for what to expect. There’s also a 360-degree tour of the museum’s 11 exhibit spaces created by the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau here.
Walt Disney World Resort / Orlando
Visit Orlando now provides 360-degree tours and short videos of Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Blizzard Beach and Hollywood Studios, among other attractions, on its website so visitors can get the lay of the land before they go.
Dry Tortugas National Park / Florida Keys
Before you take a boat or seaplane to this 100-square-mile park of mostly open water 70 miles from Key West, dive under clear blue waters and swim a coral reef with a National Park Service diver via a Google Arts & Culture video and 360-degree imagery. The partnership with the NPS and Google also features a brief tour of Fort Jefferson, the Civil War-era fort that is part of the national park.
Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park / Fort Walton Beach
See what it's like to swim with cownose stingrays at this outdoor marine adventure park in a 1 ½-minute video that takes you inside one of the park’s exhibits. The Emerald Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau also provides 360-degree tours of what it’s like to kayak around Spectre Island and build a campsite in Henderson Beach State Park.
SeaWorld Orlando / Orlando
Visit Orlando offers a virtual tour of SeaWorld, along with a VR ride on the park’s Mako Rollercoaster. At 200 feet and a top speed of 73 miles per hour, it’s Orlando’s tallest coaster, and now you can get the sensation of riding it from home.
Appleton Museum of Art / Ocala
Operated by the College of Central Florida, the museum’s award-winning mobile app highlights some of its most well-known artwork from a collection of 16,000 artifacts, including European, American, Asian, African and pre-Columbian art. Viewers also can watch art-making videos and play online games, including jigsaw and crossword puzzles based on the museum collection. The free app, called Appleton Museum of Art, can be downloaded at iTunes App and Google Play stores.
Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens / Jacksonville
Noted for its collection of more than 5,000 masterworks of American and European paintings, along with an outstanding collection of Meissen porcelain, the museum offers exclusive private virtual tours of current exhibits for $150. But there are several free online offerings, including an interactive garden tour on its tours page, with a map of the gardens and photos and facts about its plants, sculptures and landmarks.
The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art / Sarasota
The Ringling’s vast collections of 28,000 objects, including artworks, furnishings, objects, circus posters, photographs, and ephemera, are viewable online via the E-Museum here. The Ringling’s 66 acres of beautiful grounds and gardens also can be visited virtually through video grounds tours posted every Friday by the museum’s horticulturist on The Ringling’s Instagram platform. Ringling Reflections is a special program designed for people with memory loss and their care partners that now provides virtual tours; it’s free, but requires registration in advance.
NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale / Fort Lauderdale
Along with its thought-provoking international exhibits, NSU is known for a significant collection of Latin American, contemporary art with an emphasis on women, Black and Hispanic artists, and African art that spans the 19th to the 21st-century. Prior to visiting its distinctive modernist building, you can now take 360-degree tours of current exhibits. More tours, along with lectures, discussions and interviews, can be found on the museum’s YouTube channel.
Flagler Museum / Palm Beach
With its painted ceilings and gold moldings, Whitehall was Henry Flagler's Gilded Age, 75-room estate in Palm Beach from 1902 to 1913. Today, it’s a National Historic Landmark open to the public as Flagler Museum, with changing exhibits and special programs. The museum’s online virtual tour is a series of two dozen photos of rooms and halls, along with written and audio narrations, that let you encounter the opulence from your own home.
Legoland Florida Resort / Winter Haven
Before you arrive, explore an online map of this 150-acre theme park with its 50 rides custom-made for kids, age 2 to 12, then ride one of the coasters in a virtual experience hosted by Visit Orlando.
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